New School Funding Proposal

Mayor Dave Fried of Robbinsville (Mercer County) has nothing good to say about NJ’s system of dividing up state aid to schools, especially when wealthy townships like his get short shrift. Today’s Trenton Times recounts Fried’s suggestion for school funding  reform during a “State of the Township” speech:
Fried suggested divvying up two-thirds of the total state aid and equally distributing it to school districts according to student population. The remaining one-third of state aid could go towards urban school districts requiring extra assistance, such as Trenton, Newark and Camden, Fried said.
“It doesn’t have to be hard. This is fair. This is equal,” Fried said.
You can understand his consternation. Robbinsville Public Schools has an annual operating budget of $37,974,528. Almost all of that is covered by a local tax levy of $32,848,282. In order to keep taxes relatively low, Robbinsville kids end up with only  $11,104 per pupil (that’s total budgetary cost), almost $3.5K less per year than the state average of about $14.5K. 

But here's the rub: if Fried's school funding formula was implemented – and I’m not sure how you lump all NJ school districts into one group that divvies up 2/3 of state aid – aid to our needy Abbott districts would drop significantly. Currently NJ’s 31 poorest school districts (despite the implementation of  a new school funding formula that was supposed to eliminate the Abbott designation and divide money not by district but by individual student need) receive about 60% of all state school aid. Fried’s proposal cuts that in half.

Our school funding system is broken, if you assume it ever worked at all. The flaws are at both ends: we lay the state’s burden to fund public education at the feet of local taxpayers,  and we rely on the Courts to figure out how to compensate tax-poor communities. (The Corzine Administration did come up with the School Funding Reform Act, but it’s impossible to implement or fund.)

So good for Fried: he’s come up with a proposal that avoids the wackiness of Sen. Mike Doherty’s “fair tax” scheme – every kid gets the same aid regardless of need! – and pleads the case of wealthy towns like Robbinsville. It’s still impossible, but he could school the Legislature in creativity.

In related news, NJ Spotlight reports today that  "Education Law Center [primary advocartes for Abbott districts] yesterday filed a motion with the state Supreme Court, under the landmark Abbott v. Burke ruling, taking Christie to task for failing to use the School Funding Reform Act’s (SFRA) formula at all in determining school aid for fiscal 2015."

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